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8 Sep, 2010 09:45

Russian pilots land passenger jet in taiga saving 81 lives

A Tu-154 aircraft with failed flight control, navigation and radio communication systems has landed in taiga cutting a 200-meter-long swath through the forest, with no casualties and minimum damage to the plane.

The incident has already stirred the country’s Internet community, with the most-debated question as to whether or not the pilots will receive Hero of Russia awards, newsru.com website says.

Meanwhile, a group of the Federal Agency of Air Transport (Rosaviation) representatives have departed for Russia’s northwestern Komi Republic to investigate the incident, which experts call nothing less than a miracle.

The jet, with 72 passengers and nine crew members onboard was making a voyage from Russia’s Far East to Moscow. Four hours into the flight and at a two-hour distance from Moscow, the plane’s electrical generating system failed at a height of 10,000 meters above sparsely-populated taiga.

Pilots Evgeny Novoselov and Andrey Lamonov managed to land the plane manually on their third attempt, over speed, with a failed maneuvering system, no aircraft-to-ground communication and no air brakes.

“We landed at the airstrip and ended up in the woods,” one of the passengers recalled. “The emergency crews arrived straight away. Everything was organized very fast. If not for the professionalism of the crew, we wouldn't be standing here.”

As the grassy landing strip was too short for a plane that big, and the air brakes were not working, the Tu-154 rolled off into the wood, its wings “cutting the tree tops like a lawnmower,” said one of the shocked passengers later.

The craft stopped when its landing gear became bogged in a marsh.

“Our plane was designed to land on a concrete airstrip and at first we chose a rough strip and decided to land there, but during the maneuver, by a miracle we glimpsed a concrete strip, and although shorter, it would be much safer,” said Evgeny Novoselov, the aircraft’s captain.

Vladimir Ruchkin is a former pilot and actually trained the heroes in question. He says he is very proud of his former protégés.

“Up in the clouds they couldn't tell the altitude or where they were,” he told RT. “They only had enough fuel for ten minutes flight. In managing to land that plane they practically did the impossible.”

The local firefighting squad helped people out of the plane via inflatable escape chutes.

The narrowly-escaped passengers were met in the nearby village by doctors and psychologists and later taken to Moscow by a special flight – except for two who preferred to go to Moscow by train.

Alrosa Airlines, which owns the plane, says the aircraft was technically sound. The final word concerning that issue, though, rests with the special “Rosaviation” commission.

Nevertheless, if no failures in the plane’s load-carrying structure and its power-units are found and a corresponding permission is obtained from the Ministry of Transport, the airline is planning to return the plane into operation – that is, to pull it out of the forest and take off.

Test pilots will be needed, Alrosa’s representative said. Another miracle would be more useful, in the plane’s heroic pilots’ opinion.

According to Yury Karash, pilot and aviation expert, a possible explanation of the accident could be that the aircraft’s equipment was worn out.

Providing that the Tupolev 154 is not quite a brand new aircraft and I am sure that this aircraft was manufactured at least 20 years ago, maybe even more, I believe there is a chance that the equipment was just worn out,” he said.

Designed to operate in a very harsh environment, Soviet aircraft are over-engineered and still very safe to fly, but they need proper maintenance, Karash said.

He praised the professional skills of the crew, upholding the idea of rewarding them with medals; these would be very well-deserved, he pointed out.

The Tu-154 is not an easy aircraft to fly, even when everything operates as it is supposed to operate, but to land it with inoperative flaps is a challenging piece of work, and I have to say that the crew did it just fine,” Karash said.

The incident brings to memory the “miracle on the Hudson River” just last year, when a US Airways plane with 155 people on board landed in New York's Hudson River after a massive engine failure.